A debut multigenerational novel focuses on a 20th-century Jewish American family.
When the book introduces Frederick Green, he is a young boy listening to his siblings practice their instruments. The Greens are a Jewish family living in Philadelphia in the 1930s. They may not be rich, but thanks to Fred’s father, a Latvian immigrant who sells insurance, they make do. Unfortunately, the family is struck by tragedy when Fred’s brother, Will, a violin virtuoso, dies at a young age. The calamity sends Fred’s sister, Lorraine, down a path that will end in her own early death. These events leave Fred as the sole Green child to make it in the world. But make it he does. Fred wins a college scholarship, becomes an ace boxer as an undergraduate, and eventually earns a law degree. He then opens his own law firm, marries into a wealthy family, and soon he and his wife have a child. Fred must painstakingly build his practice, yet all seems to be going well. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 has Fred attempting to join the military, but, due to his age and status as a family man, he must settle for helping crack enemy codes as a civilian. Things take a dismal turn when Fred becomes caught up in a shady business deal run by his father-in-law. The whole affair, which includes accusations of arson, will cost Fred everything. With time and determination, however, he rebuilds and remarries. He even passes along his drive to a new daughter named Samantha, who will one day become an attorney just like her dad.
Bolch’s ambitious story tends to focus on relationships, and they are mostly unhappy ones. From Fred’s sister’s abysmal marriage to a local boor to Samantha’s equally dreadful union with an overachiever, the partnerships are hardly glamorous. But it is through these difficult pairings that the tale generates its best material. Just as it seems someone has found the right person, it becomes very clear that is not the case. Samantha, for instance, becomes engaged to a medical student at Columbia. Watching such a seemingly excellent pairing fizzle gives the book the kind of palpable conflict that remains lacking in other areas. A number of scenes can be dull, including Fred’s law school graduation, which is no more thrilling that it sounds. Dialogue can often be dry, as when a suitor explains to Samantha rather flatly: “I’ll pick you up at six so that we can have dinner before the show.” Nevertheless, certain details give the saga color. Fred’s adventures take him to a once-famous resort in upstate New York while Samantha eventually finds herself in an indisputably gloomy Scranton, Pennsylvania. Still, more information might have painted a more robust picture. If the Greens reflect on the myriad changes in Pennsylvania and the country over the years, such musings are not noted.
A rich assortment of fraught relationships bolsters this family story and its characters.